How Joe Richman makes 'Radio Diaries'

Joe Richman created Radio Diaries in 1996. He began giving tape recorders to “ordinary” people and working with them to tell stories about their own lives. Joe also produces audio histories. A distinguishing feature of his work is the lack of an authoritative, reportorial voice; Joe is a master of the non-narrated audio story. His work has won the premier awards an broadcast journalist could win, for stories including “Thembi’s AIDS Diary,” “Mandela: An Audio History” and “Teen Contender.” In November 2015, Joe spoke at NPR about his work and what he’s learned about audio storytelling while doing it.

Joe Richman’s presentation at NPR on November 24, 2015

Note: The audio begins after he’s been introduced (we’ll spare you the formalities).

What Joe looks for in a story:

  • Scenes
  • Transitions in scenes
  • Little “micro-narratives”
  • A good character. Joe says, “There are all sorts of good talkers.” Sometimes more reserved people just make you lean in closer to listen.
  • Interviews with the same person in multiple settings — in order to get different kinds of tape (a person doing something, a person reflecting, and so on)
  • A moment when something is happening
  • Moments when you can hear people thinking

You’re trying to get lucky… You’re trying to put yourself in a position to have something happen.”



On helping diarists tell their own, unmediated stories:

  • Provide a lot of direction. What kind of tape should be recorded?
  • Provide feedback on tape as it comes to you. Mentor diarists along the way.
  • Encourage diarists to interview other people, e.g. friends at school or coaches or family members. (Conversations between parents and teenagers can be radio gold.)
  • Teach diarists about ambient sound — when to record it, and when to avoid it!
  • Identify diarists’ weak points. Some are good at confessional moments, some at telling stories, some at recording sounds. Push them to record the elements they struggle with.


Some tips for getting the tape you need from story subjects:

Make it a conversation, not an interview.”

  • You’ll get better tape if you demonstrate true curiosity.
  • Let your questions follow from what the other person just said: “That’s so interesting you say that, because…”
  • Get people to do play-by-play and set scenes
  • Have diarists start each recording with an opening — the date, a location, or what’s happening right now. This provides you with transitions you’ll need.


On story structure:

Structure is the part that kills me… The internal logic has to all make sense.”

  • “I live in fear of mushy-ness.” Structure is necessary!
  • Before you even start putting your piece together, choose a beginning and an end. “I usually fake a structure because… it’s paralyzing to not have a structure. So I fake it for a while and just proceed and then, a lot of times, I’ll rework it.”
  • Try to fit all the information the story requires into scenes, structurally. That may involve diary-ish narration happening over a scene or information in a scene itself.
  • Embed little signposts and access points within the story
  • In a ProTools session, I divide my tape into categories. I “break it into atoms and then build back up.”


You can find out more about Joe and his work at the Radio Diaries website. And I recommend reading this excellent piece Joe wrote for Transom, called “My So-Called Narrative Life: How to Turn the Messy, Contradictory, and Often Boring Raw Material of Ordinary Life Into a Story.”

Alison MacAdam was a Senior Editorial Specialist with the NPR Training team, where she focused on audio storytelling. Prior to that, she edited All Things Considered.